Hybrid Symposium

Today’s Challenges: Transitions in South Korea-US Relations, Koreans in the US, and Black-Korean Ties

Panel III: Trajectories of International Relations in the 21st Century

Session III attempts to offer a contemporary Korean American perspective on the changing contours of the Korean-Black relationship. It will revisit the convoluted Black-Korean tension in the U.S. that is reputedly culminated in the 1992 Los Angeles Civil Unrest, while exploring the Korean-Black relations from transnational and global perspectives. The black-Korean relations have a rich and multi-faceted history, going beyond the simplistic and reified exploitative relations; they have encountered each other in areas of religion, culture, community building, and in social movements, and have inspired, cooperated with, and learned from, each other.  While critically examining the role of white supremacy or white racism, anti-Black, and anti-Asian subaltern racism in the development of Black-Korean tension, we also need to explore the evolving Korean-Black relations that suggests political possibilities of an African-Korean—and African-Asian—alliance, as shown in the Korean Americans’ support for the recent Black Lives Matter movement.  Equally important to consider in the Korean-black dynamics is the increasing Black-Korean interactions in South Korea and in the US; with the increasing number of African Americans deployed as a part of the US military or working as English language teachers, and the adoption of mixed-race children from South Korea into African-American families, respectively. We also explore the debt the K-pop artists and entertainers owe to African American culture that gave rise to exciting and popular hybrid form of twenty-first-century cultural production in South Korea and the ways in African American community has engaged with these cultural products.


Erik Mobrand is Korea Policy Chair and a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. He studies political transformation in Korea and Asia. Erik is the author of Top-Down Democracy in South Korea (University of Washington Press, 2019) and articles on topics including corruption, political parties, law and politics, criminality, gender and politics, management of cities, and Korean relations with Southeast Asia. In 2016, Erik joined Seoul National University as an associate professor in the Graduate School of International Studies. He previously served as assistant professor of political science at National University of Singapore. He received his Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University. Erik is enthusiastic about introducing American audiences to the breadth of thinking in South Korea on social and political issues.

Jae-jung Suh is currently Professor at International Christian University (Tokyo, Japan) and a Harvard Yenching Institute Visiting Scholar in 2022-23. He has served as Associate Professor and Director of Korea Studies at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University and Assistant Professor in Department of Government at Cornell University as well as on the Presidential Commission on Policy Planning (Republic of Korea). An expert on the U.S.-Korea relations, U.S. policy toward Asia, international relations of East Asia, international security, and IR theory, he is currently working on regional orders in East Asia, human security, and North Korea. He has authored and edited numerous journal articles and books, including Power, Interest and Identity in Military Alliances (2007); Rethinking Security in East Asia: Identity, Power and Efficiency (2004); Truth and Reconciliation in the Republic of Korea: Between the Present and Future of the Korean Wars (2012); Origins of North Korea’s Juche: Colonialism, War, and Development (2012); “From Singapore to Hanoi and Beyond: How (Not) to Build Peace between the U.S. and North Korea,”; “Missile Defense and the Security Dilemma: THAAD, Japan’s ‘Proactive Peace,’ and the Arms Race in Northeast Asia,”; “The Imbalance of Power, the Balance of Asymmetric Terror: Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) in Korea,” and “War-Like History or Diplomatic History? Historical Contentions and Regional Order in East Asia.”

He is a recipient of numerous grants and fellowships including Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research, SSRC-MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for Peace and Security in a Changing World, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Smith Richardson Foundation grant, and East West Center fellowship. He was Distinguished Professor at Ewha Womans University, visiting professor at Seoul National University, research professor at Yonsei University, visiting scholar at MIT and visiting fellow at University of California, Irvine. He received his Ph.D. and Master in political science from University of Pennsylvania and B.A. in physics from the University of Chicago.

Paper Abstracts

Erik Mobrand, Korea Policy Chair & Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation

Washington’s Democracy in Asia: South Korea and the Prospects of a Global Partnership

Seoul and Washington recently agreed to cooperate on a “global partnership” that re-imagines the Republic of Korea – United States alliance as something well beyond a defense agreement. The United States is keen to have South Korea defend and promote democratic values in the Asian region. A second successive government in Seoul aims to increase the country’s global standing. These aspirations appear to have converged on the global partnership. An assessment of the prospective success of the current initiative can be aided by examining and attempting to explain the record to date. Why has South Korea not yet played a greater leadership role among democracies in Asia? The country has the credibility, the democratic record, and the regional ties to do so. While discussion of the country’s regional and international roles has tended to frame South Korea as a middle power state, an alternative line of inquiry begins with semantic ambivalence and the subjective context of South Korea’s external engagement. In particular, conflicting meanings of democracy, historically-rooted understandings of the connection between nation and democracy, and ideas about the relationship between the nation and the external world raise challenges to the emergence of South Korea as a regional democratic leader. The relationship with the United States is critical to understanding these challenges.

Jae-jung Suh, Professor at International Christian University & Harvard Yenching Institute Visiting Scholar

San Francisco between Seoul and Tokyo? Colonial Past in Korea’s Contemporary International Relations

Why is it that Koreans and Japanese are so embroiled in seemingly endless disagreement and dispute about the distant past as to render their contemporary cooperation difficult, if not impossible? How is it that the governments of the two nations have taken measures that are seemingly intended to ameliorate their relationship, only to exacerbate it time and again? Is there a way for the United States, its government and people, to make a positive intervention in Northeast Asia so that its allies may mend their fences and build a future of peace and cooperation? I engage these questions as I develop an historical institutionalist argument that to understand the long-lasting animosity between Koreans and Japanese and to explain their contemporary challenges, we need to re-examine the San Francisco Peace Conference that formalized the ‘post-war order’ of the Asia-Pacific after the end of World War II. The United States, as one of the victors of the war and as a rising hegemon among the allies, exercised its status and wherewithal to found a regional order that set the political boundary of the Asia Pacific. The region’s architecture, formalized in San Francisco during the Korean War as part of America’s liberal international order, preserved the past of colonialism within itself while creating new cleavages between Korea and Japan and within the Asia Pacific. The “San Francisco system” has since served as both a bond that holds Korea and Japan together as U.S. allies and a wedge that keeps them apart. But it has also been confronted with a number of challenges from within, of which those spearheaded by “comfort women,” “forced laborers,” and civil society actors hold the transformative potential to move Korea and the region past the post-war San Francisco system.